In any format of the game of cricket—Test match, ODI or T20—victory becomes doubtful if the opening batsman of the team gets out quickly or cheaply. Eight months ago, before commencing his innings as Pakistan’s new leader, Imran Khan had touted Asad Umar—a former CEO of a major multinational corporation in Pakistan and Imran’s right-hand man—as the “opening batsman” of his team to lead Pakistan to a new destiny. In fact, Umar’s portfolio as finance minister of Imran’s cabinet had been announced days before Imran took the oath.
Last week, in the first major reshuffle of his cabinet, Umar became its most prominent casualty. Appearing hours after vacating his office, Umar made it public on a private television channel that he had been fired because of his poor handling of the economy. Pakistan’s tottering economy has been Imran’s Achilles’ heel from day one of his stewardship of the country. He inherited a moth-eaten economy, which was sluggish and poorly-performing, and also overburdened with a mounting debt crisis.
In its first 60 years, Pakistan, until 2007, had a total foreign debt of $37 billion. However, by the time Imran got hold of Pakistan, it had ballooned, in just 11 years, to a staggering $97 billion. The two regimes of the bone-corrupt Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif borrowed left and right to keep the economy on life support. They have nothing to show by way of the utilisation of the massive loans they took from international lending agencies. Pakistan has not built one major dam since the 1970s. The result is not only inadequate agricultural production but—more damningly—it has spawned a huge gap in power generation, with demand far exceeding paltry production.
Umar, though not an economic wizard, did manage to infuse some life into a moribund economy, thanks largely to a generous helping hand from the likes of Saudi Arabia, UAE and China. He did manage to bring down the current account deficit from a whopping $24 billion to just $12 billion. His removal from the cabinet, and Imran’s inner circle, thus forces pundits to scratch their heads in search of a plausible reason justifying such a harsh action.
The riddle gets harder to solve given Imran’s insistence that performance by his cabinet colleagues is the only yardstick for him. If so, Umar’s scorecard speaks of efficiency for itself; he cut down to half, the huge balance of payment his predecessors had foisted on the economy. His performance was quantifiable.
What, then, could have given Imran the trigger to fire his closest colleague?
When he was skipper of Pakistan’s cricket team Imran was known to have run a tight ship. He brooked no interference and tolerated no dissent. It is hard to imagine him shedding his old skin in politics, or in power, though both demand a much higher level of tolerance than leading a cricket eleven. Old habits die hard and bad habits die harder.
Those pundits claiming to be privy to Imran’s inner sanctum in power are saying it, tongue-in-cheek, that the catalyst for Umar’s undoing was precisely that: His dissent with Imran over the bailout package from IMF—a measure of last resort to resuscitate and revive Pakistan’s haemorrhaging economy.
On the hustings seeking a popular mandate to run the country, Imran and his close aides, including Umar, had ridiculed any suggestion about begging IMF for assistance.
The battle-cry, then, was to break the begging bowl for good. However, the reality-check after gaining power dictated to Imran a rethink: Sticking to the status-quo was deemed the better part of valour, though Imran—and also Umar—insisted this would be the last time Pakistan would seek a bailout from IMF.
It is ironic that Umar was fired the day after he returned home after negotiating the fine print of its bailout package with IMF. The devil, in this case too, is in the details of the package which most presume would be suffused with harsh conditionalities, as usual. But to Umar these conditions are much too hard. He betrayed this concern in his TV interview after the firing when he said he wouldn’t be party to a decision to crush the people of Pakistan under IMF heels.It is obvious that Imran condescended to swallow the bitter pill but for Umar it was too much. He disagreed with Imran and paid the price for dissent.
Imran may have quieted Umar to make a powerful statement to his cabinet colleagues: They must toe his line or be ready to exit. However, he has done a great disservice to himself and his ideal of a ’New Pakistan’ by replacing Umar in the crucial post of finance with Hafeez Sheikh, an acolyte of the much-maligned Zardari. He was in charge of the economy under his mentor when it was burdened with senseless borrowing from all and sundry. How can a man with such a sordid past help transform Imran’s dream into reality?Imran has a lot to answer for, no matter how much he may abhor doing so. Power must carry a heavy cross.